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Steven M. Cohen: The Single Greatest Threat To Intermarried Jews? (Just Kidding, Steve — Please Don’t Sue For Libel!)

Steven M. Cohen: The Single Greatest Threat To Intermarried Jews? (Just Kidding, Steve — Please Don’t Sue For Libel!)

I recently spent a lovely day at Eden Village Camp, a Jewish environmental sleep-away camp in which kids get to — among other activities — milk goats, feed chickens, pick vegetables and make smoothies using a bike-powered blender.

Although my visit was as a journalist, not a prospective parent, I think the camp would be a perfect fit next summer for my daughter Ellie, who, in addition to her passion for all things Jewish, loves science and nature and is an ardent vegetarian.

With camp on my brain, I was newly inspired to sit down and read Steven M. Cohen and Judith Veinstein’s Foundation for Jewish Camp-commissioned study on the Midwest market for Jewish camps. Especially because, according to the summary posted on the Foundation’s Web site, the study focuses on interfaith families.

Now, I’ve interviewed Cohen on numerous occasions, and not only is he smart, articulate and affable, but he’s a longtime leader in the field of Jewish sociological research. Nonetheless, I can’t help but wonder, given his frequent condemnations of intermarriage (including in a recent Detroit Free Press article, where he reiterated his trademark line about how intermarriage constitutes “the greatest single threat to Jewish continuity today”), whether he’s the most appropriate person to be studying this topic.

While I was on vacation, Cohen irked my fellow intermarried bloggers at and the Jewish Outreach Institute when he told A Rival Jewish Paper That We Shall Neither Name Nor Link To that the study’s most interesting finding was that interfaith families don’t feel unwelcome, just incompetent, in Jewish institutions. According to Cohen, as quoted in the article: “…the response of welcoming, making personnel more sensitive to the intermarried and watching your language and having smiling ushers is not going to be effective.”

I kept out of the fray on the debate about whether welcomes are necessary or not. But it does give you a sense of Cohen’s attitude. In reading the study itself, I was struck by how little space it seems to devote to its purported purpose — determining what strategies might encourage more interfaith families to consider Jewish camp — and how much space it instead devotes to rehashing Cohen’s favorite topic: how interfaith families are less engaged in Jewish life than are in-married ones.

According to the study, “key indicators testify to the breadth of the Jewish engagement gap between in-married and mixed-married Jews,” including the oh-so-startling finding that intermarried Jews are less likely to feel it is “very important” that their children marry Jews and are less likely to raise their children as Jews exclusively. (The study includes all intermarried Jews who are raising their children “Jewish in any way,” even if they are also raising them in another religion.)

In case you had forgotten how disengaged intermarried Jews are, the study later reminds the reader that “the in-married more than the mixed married are not only more engaged in Jewish life, not only more desirous of Jewishly engaged youngsters … they are also more likely to seek a Jewish environment — in people and programs — at the camps to which they send their children.” A few pages later, the study notes interfaith families’ “relative indifference to providing a strong Jewish educational background for their children.”

And in its concluding remarks, the study tellingly argues for engaging interfaith families and their children, but not because to do so might add meaning to their lives or might enrich the Jewish community. Rather, it’s because “history has shown that the children of the mixed married have high probabilities of marrying non-Jews, and then of raising their own children as non-Jews.” In other words, the main purpose of Jewish engagement, even the engagement of kids from interfaith families, is to prevent intermarriage! Argh.

In fairness, I was pleased to see the study (after ranting about intermarried Jews) acknowledge that not all intermarried Jewish families are alike, and that the differences between in-married and intermarried families are minimal once one compares synagogue-affiliated interfaith families with synagogue-affiliated in-married families:

“…once these measures of Jewish engagement are taken into account, the impact of marriage becomes statistically insignificant. In other words, if you want to predict whether a family will send their child to a Jewish camp, you’re better off knowing about how involved they and their children are in Jewish life. Once you know that, it won’t help much, if at all, to learn whether they happen to be an in-married or mixed-married family.”

My bitching aside, the study does offer a few good ideas as to how Jewish camps might attract more kids from interfaith families: better publicity about scholarships and financial incentives, as well as about the many benefits (not just the Jewish education/socialization) that the camps offer. It also wisely suggests reaching out, first, to families that are already somewhat involved/interested in Jewish life.

Having just visited Eden Village, however, and with minimal effort gotten several unaffiliated Jewish friends (intermarried and in-married) excited about it, I have a few other suggestions. Demonstrate, as Eden Village does, that your camp is a nurturing, loving, values-rich place where children will learn (through a Jewish lens) about social justice, appreciating nature and caring for the environment. Oh, and having tasty, healthy food wouldn’t hurt either.

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